12.08.11, Frakes, Contextualizing the Muslim Other in Medieval Christian Discourse

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Sharon Kinoshita

The Medieval Review 12.08.11

Frakes, Jerold C.. Contextualizing the Muslim Other in Medieval Christian Discourse. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Pp. xx, 182. ISBN: 978-0-230-11143-1.

Reviewed by:
Sharon Kinoshita
University of California, Santa Cruz

This volume (comprising a Foreword, seven essays, and an Afterword) seeks to "bring together a wide range of approaches" (xv) to the "subfield" of "the academic study of the Muslim Other" (xi), and especially to "modify the parochial Anglo-Franco-Latin mode of study" (xviii) that has characterized it to date. In this it succeeds moderately well, with chapters on Celtic, German, and Armenian, alongside others featuring Old French, Middle English, and Latin examples. The last two chapters are post-medieval in focus and will not be included in this review: Baltasar Fra-Molinero's "Don Quijote Attacks His Muslim Other: The Maese Pedro Episode of Don Quijote," and Zdenko Zlatar's "From Medieval to Modern: The Myth of Kosovo, 'The Turks,' and Montenegro (A Lacanian Interpretation)."

The editor's Foreword is framed as an external history of the study of the Muslim Other, with Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) as a watershed. Frakes identifies a first phase, preceding Orientalism, that was primarily descriptive (Norman Daniel, R. W. Southern, William Wistar Comfort, Jürgen Brummack, Dorothee Metlitzky [sic]), if sometimes politically powerful through the "relentless accumulation of evidence" (xii). A second, more overtly political phase included Paul Bancourt, Philippe Sénac, and Benjamin Z. Kedar. A third, postcolonial phase, influenced by Said, Foucault, Homi Bhabha, and others, comprises anthologies by David Blanks and Michael Frassetto; Jeffrey Jerome Cohen; Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Deanne Williams; and Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac, and Joseph Ziegler, as well as Suzanne Conklin Akbari's Idols in the East. Finally, there is the "severely limited" mode of analysis derived from "Bhabha's conception of cultural interstices and liminal zones" in which the Other is "realized as a subject who has established a position for himself or herself to 'write back' against the hegemonic 'discourse of the Other,'" with Gayatri Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?" cited as an early example (xiii). [Disclosure: In a footnote to this section, Frakes characterizes my 2006 book Medieval Boundaries as "ambitious...but troubled," for what he implies (inaccurately, I think) is my over-indebtedness to the theories of Bhabha and Spivak.] Though, as Frakes says, it is impossible to be exhaustive, the absence of such names as Geraldine Heng and Michelle R. Warren is surprising. [1] I will return to some problematic aspects of the Foreword after a consideration of the five studies focused on the Middle Ages.

Lynn Ramey's "Medieval Miscegenation: Hybridity and the Anxiety of Inheritance" analyzes representations of mixed offspring in three thirteenth-century romances: the Middle English King of Tars; two versions of the Old French Fille du comte de Pontieu; and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival. The ostensible frame is the medieval reception of classical theories of generation (the "one-seed" theory of Aristotle and "two seed" theory of Galen) as well as Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, segueing into issues of inheritance, miscegenation, and interfaith marriage. While Ramey's examples amply bear out her conclusion that "there was no consensus about what happens when different peoples form physical and emotional alliances" (16), her discussions themselves occasionally rest on some problematic slippages, like the tendencies to see religion as racialized and to treat race as the primary marker of difference, or to "extrapolat[e]" Isidore's theories of mixed class-based marriages to peoples of different faiths and treating their procreation as a judicium dei between seeds.

Matthieu Boyd, "Celts Seen as Muslims and Muslims Seen by Celts in Medieval Literature" begins with a double observation: Old French and Middle English texts sometimes coded the lands of Celtic-speaking peoples as "Saracen;" at the same time, Irish, Welsh, and Breton depictions of the Muslim Other largely resemble the depictions found in the French and Anglo-Norman sources they translated. The article catalogues various Irish and Welsh examples, which show no consistent patterns except fidelity to source texts (in Latin and Old Norse as well as French and Anglo-Norman) and a certain tendency to attenuate the denigration of Muslims in order to emphasize local Celtic concerns: the Welsh suspicion of their Anglo-Norman colonizers or the privileging of cultural values such as gift exchange and hospitality. Texts discussed include (for Welsh) Brut y Tywysogion (The Chronicle of the Princes), translations of Boeve de Haumtone and the Song of Roland, the Mabinogion, the White Book of Rhydderch, and the Red Book of Hergest, and (for Irish) the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, Aided Muirchertaig meic Erca, and the Early Modern Irish Bevis of Hampton. Boyd is inconsistent in giving dates and contextual information for the texts mentioned, and at one point inaccurately lumps together as "romances" (26) a list of source texts that include epics and chronicles as well as romances in Anglo-Norman and Latin. Boyd closes with an argument for seeing medieval Celtic translations less as "derivative" than "participatory." In the case of depictions of Muslims, borrowings allowed "Celtic language writers, themselves implicated in similarly exoticizing and unflattering depictions by their proto-imperialist neighbors, [to join] in broader European discourse" (32).

Christopher Taylor's "Prester John, Christian Enclosure, and the Spatial Transmission of Islamic Alterity in the Twelfth-Century West" analyzes two twelfth-century Latin texts: Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete, Robert of Ketton's translation of the Qur'an, and the so-called Letter of Prester John. Inspired by Cary Howie's Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure in Medieval Literature (42 and 56 n. 6), Taylor reads the two as "coterminous spatial fantasies" that seek in different ways to enclose the Islamic Other. His range of reference is large, with Howie, Michael Uebel, and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen on the one hand, and Thomas Burman, John Tolan, and Bernard Hamilton, on the other, making for some strange bedfellows, with the essay's concluding line given over to a riff on Freud's "Wo Es war, soll Ich werden" (55). Taylor's reading of the Lex Mahumet (1143)--part of Peter the Venerable's program to improve Latin understanding of Islam for purposes of propaganda and conversion--focuses less on the content than on form and format. For Taylor, the commentary around the translation and the hostility of subsequently added marginal glosses amount to a strategy of containment that "seeks the preservation and territorial extension of a societas Christiana in [ways that] resemble the violent efforts of the crusading movement that it was formulated to subtend" (41). The section on the Letter of Prester John (c. 1165) contains a useful summary of the history of that quintessentially medieval figure. The upshot is that the legend, in its permutations across time, "work[ed] to project as external the unassimilable excesses inherent but disavowed in...an attempt at a Christian subjectivity." Prester John acted "simultaneously as a repository for Christian alterity and as a guaranteed defense against the threat of Islamic alterity" (54).

In "Mapping the Muslims: Images of Islam in Middle High German Literature of the Thirteenth Century," David F. Tinsley moves from the tendency to conflate images of the Muslim and the (racialized) Moor to the "malevolent caricature" of Muslims in the Rolandslied (the Pfaffe Konrad's translation/adaptation of the Chanson de Roland). He then weighs these two largely negative sets of representations against those in the Ebstorf Mappa mundi, Rudolf von Ems's Weltchronik, the Stricker's Karl der Große, and two works of Wolfram von Eschenbach. Throughout, Tinsley's nuanced analyses seem calculated to counter the facile reductionism of prevailing readings. In describing the Rolandslied's depiction of Muslims, for example, as "easily as virulent as the portraits of the two other most hated groups on nonbelievers within the German literary tradition, the Jews and the Beguines" (66), he interrupts the widespread tendency to excerpt and thematize decontextualized negative images of Islam or Muslims. The Ebstorf map (c. 1300), he insists, is not Eurocentric, since (1) Europe's place in it is (typically for mappaemundi) subordinate to that of Asia, and (2) "Europa" is a rare concept, occurring only once in Middle High German; likewise, "Germany" (Dûtisklant) is attested only a single time, with "notions of the foreign in Middle High German [being] regionally, not nationally centered" (72). Most significantly, the map, whose principle frame of reference is the medieval Alexander legend, features only "traces, fragments, and the barest of allusions" to Arab tradesmen, with no depictions of Islam or Muslims (73); the true "Heimat of evil" is northwest Asia, with Gog and Magog and the monstrous races. In the Weltchronik, Rudolf's description of Asia is dominated by India and the Wonders of the East. Linked with the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah, Muslims are "present[ed]...as a horde rather than as a people" (78), "the most recent manifestation of a fallen world that is moving towards the cataclysmic resolution set in motion through Christ's first coming" (79). Africa, site of some of the world's greatest cities, is defined by "the heat of its climate and not the color of its natives' skin" (80); when dark skin is mentioned, it is in neutral terms, "with no reference to subjugation based on Genesis or to bizarre or demonic behaviors" (81).

Tinsley's longest section treats the conception of Saracens in Wolfram von Eschenbach. In Willehalm, passages on God's tolerance towards heathens (voiced by the protagonist's Saracen-born wife) alongside others on their damnation reflect a contemporary debate about "the nature of creation" (84). For Parzival, Tinsley examines Wolfram's multiplication of narrative points of view, attention to motivations other than religion, and association of Belacane with a positive Marian symbol to counter Alfred Ebenbauer's contention that "the Middle High German literary tradition offers a largely racist depiction of dark-skinned peoples," with women cast as exotic objects of sexual desire and men given monstrously sexual charateristics (85). Overall, Wolfram's world is "governed less by rigid divisions and hierarchies than by fluidity and transformation," especially as mediated by "the transcendent power of chivalry and courtly love" (84). Finally, the Stricker's short verse narrative "Die Königen von Mohrenland" "us[es] the rhetoric of courtly service to remind [the audience] that the Muslim triumphs of his time could be attributed to Christian failures in a fallen world" (92). In the end, Tynsley's panorama of examples attests "the remarkable diversity" (92) of medieval German depictions of the Muslim Other.

Sergio La Porta's "Conflicted Coexistence: Christian-Muslim Interaction and Its Representation in Medieval Armenia" reads Armenian texts from the period of Seljuk domination (eleventh through thirteenth centuries) in light of the evolving complexities of Armenian-Muslim interactions. From the Seljuk victory at Manzikert (1071) through the fall of Edessa (1144), Aristakes Lastivertc'i, Matthew of Edessa, and Nerses Snorhali combine dehumanizing invectives against Muslims with eschatological perspectives casting the Seljuks as agents of divine punishment of Armenian sinfulness. From the mid-twelfth century, new lived realities--the emergence of a distinct merchant class, the adoption of Islamic institutions and urban morphologies, increasing rates of intermarriage and conversion, and the rise of a new monarchical state in Cilicia--produced "a deep anxiety toward cultural hybridity" (114) that resulted in legal prescriptions against Armenian-Muslim fraternization and other attempts to police the borders of Armenian identity. Throughout, La Porta's skillful narration of the "complexity and disunity" of political affairs (104), which involved Georgians, Byzantines, Crusaders, and internal "heretics" as well as a spate of Muslim principalities, is combined with attention to textual detail, as in his four-part taxonomy of the "dehumanizing invectives" found in historical writings (107).

John Tolan's Afterword revisits the question of medievalists' use and abuse of Said's conceptual frameworks, with salutary cautions on the importance of historical contextualization. These include taking account of the anachronism of modern concepts of "tolerance" and "race"; the inaccuracy of understanding "Saracen" as referring exclusively to Muslims; the importance of contextualizing polemical discourse within "the complexity and richness of contacts among medieval Jews, Christians, and Muslims; and, echoing Tinsley, "the inappropriateness of the Eurocentric model when dealing with medieval perceptions of the East" (175).

This brings us back to the title, Contextualizing the Muslim Other in Medieval Christian Discourse. Despite Frakes' subsequent acknowledgment of the multiplicity of such discourses (xviii), the title nevertheless gestures toward the volume's limitations. First, specifying the Muslim Other limits comparisons with the representation of other medieval Others. While mentions of Celts, Jews, heretics, Black Africans, and monstrous races do surface in various essays, an explicit discussion of the mobility of medieval categories of difference would have gone a long way in contextualizing such juxtapositions and perhaps prevented the unexamined conflation of religious, racial, and species categories implied in Frakes' mention of works like Ladislas Bugner's The Image of the Black in Western Art and John Block Friedman's The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought alongside studies by Daniel, Southern, Bancourt, Sénac, and Tolan. Secondly, focus on the Muslim Other means that a consideration of cases where a Muslim is represented as a friend, an ally, a business associate, a companion, or even a run-of-the-mill adversary is discouraged, if not foreclosed, from the start. Perhaps this explains the absence of an entry on Iberia, except from the perspective of the post-medieval, post-expulsion seventeenth century. Finally, Medieval Christian Discourse subsumes texts as linguistically, culturally, and generically varied as Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, Brut y Tywysogion, the Letter of Prester John, Rudolf of Ems' Weltchronik, and Matthew of Edessa's chronicle into a religiously-defined singular, implying a unity that the Foreword must belatedly work to undo.

Frakes characterizes the volume as "forward-looking in that it presents the current research concerns of the contributors" (xv). Of the five essays discussed here, Boyd's gives us an overview of Celtic representations of the Muslim Other; Ramey's and Taylor's approach the question through discrete problematics (models of generation and the thematics of enclosure, respectively), while Tinsley's and La Porta's trace the vicissitudes of representations in the German and Armenian traditions. Beyond the editor's acknowledgment of the multiplicity of Christian discourses in the Middle Ages, the Foreword does little to put this "collection of chapters" (xiv) into conversation. Given Frakes' critique of the parochialism of existing studies, for example, a discussion of how Celtic, German, and Armenian examples add to or change the perceptions proferred in Anglo-, Franco-, and Latin texts would have been welcome. Readings of Parzival in both Ramey (13-15) and Tinsley (84-87) present another missed opportunity (though Frakes and Tinsley tantalizingly allude to their mutual disagreement at xx, n. 23 and 101 n. 53, respectively). Absent such cross-conversations, readers are likely to dip into the volume for essays on their preestablished areas of interest, missing the opportunity productively to rethink the problematics of Muslims in/and medieval "Christian" discourse.

-------- Notes:

1. Two useful overviews, which presumably appeared too late for Frakes' review, are: Simon Gaunt, "Can the Middle Ages Be Postcolonial?" Comparative Literature 61 (2009): 160-76, and Lisa Lampert-Weissig, Medieval Literature and Postcolonial Studies (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010). Also deserving mention are the journal Medieval Encounters and various special issues of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies.

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Author Biography

Sharon Kinoshita

University of California, Santa Cruz